Organizing Boxes of Old Photos

Organizing Boxes of Old Photos

The daunting project can be broken down into smaller tasks.

Tackling the task of organizing decades of photographs and storing them in acid-free, archival boxes and photo albums can prevent yellowing and deterioration.

Tackling the task of organizing decades of photographs and storing them in acid-free, archival boxes and photo albums can prevent yellowing and deterioration. Photo courtesy of Jody Al-Saigh

Stacks of boxes containing thousands of photographs line the walls of the basement in Alice Denson’s Fairfax home. For the past five years, the 73-year old mother and grandmother has promised herself and her family that she would begin the monumental task of sorting and organizing the photos. Still, the boxes stand, covered by layers of dust that grow thicker as the years pass.

“I even have photos of my grandparents,” she said. “I want to leave them in order for my daughter and grandchildren. My daughter has been pushing me to start and she’s offered to help since we’re not getting out of the house much these days. She’s even offered to hire someone to help me, but it just hasn’t happened yet.”

Coronavirus-induced stay at home orders have resulted in unexpected free time, particularly for those who are most susceptible to contracting COVID-19. Like Denson, many believe that this is an ideal time to sort old photos. Mustering the wherewithal to begin the project is the hard part.

“Photos are intrinsically linked to our emotions and can be tough to get rid of.”

—Jody Al-Saigh, Picture Perfect Organizing

Starting monumental and often emotionally charged organizational tasks like sorting a lifetime of photographs can be daunting, says organizer Susan Unger, CPO and Owner of Clutter SOS, who specializes in working with seniors. “My clients are often dealing with organizational challenges, medical issues, mental health issues, perfectionism or life crises,” she said.

Life experiences, the very events that photos are meant to capture and preserve, can also be the roadblocks that keep these memories stored in boxes indefinitely.

“Photos are intrinsically linked to our emotions and can be tough to get rid of,” said photograph organizer Jody Al-Saigh, owner of Picture Perfect Organizing. “They can even be hard to look through if they bring up a painful memory for someone, so sticking them in a box on a shelf is just easier for some.”

Unlike re-organizing a closet that’s bursting with obvious clutter, photographic items like slides or film are easy to pile-up unnoticed. “Photos are often an afterthought when it comes to organizing,” said Al-Saigh. “Prints don’t take up much room, and digital photos take up no physical space. So, they can be put to the side in order to prioritize organizing larger areas such as a garage or basement.”

After deciding to begin the daunting task the first step is scouring the nooks and crannies of one’s home, gathering all of the photos and bringing them together in one place, advises Al-Saigh. “You will get a true indication of what you have to work with,” she said.

Knowing the amount of items that need to be organized can assist in setting a realistic goal and a deadline by which to reach it. “Don’t try to take on too much at once,” said Al-Saigh. “Work in small batches over time.”

Creating categories such as the year a photo was taken or the holiday it captures can be useful in the sorting process, suggests Al-Saigh. She recommends her ‘ABCs’ method for deciding which photos to keep and which to discard.

“‘A’ is for albums which should hold the best photos in your collection. You don’t need everything to go in an album, just the gems,” she said. “‘B’ is for box which hold photos that add to the story but can be saved separately as needed. ‘C’ is for can, as in trash can. Discard blurry, bad or duplicate photos, landscapes and any photos you just don’t like.”

The ‘S,’ she says are for photos that are not of the best quality, but that help to tell a story. Those photos should be categorized as an A or a B.

“Save, scan and enjoy prints,” said Al-Saigh. “Make albums from prints, put photos in archival storage boxes or sleeves, make back-ups of scanned images by using a cloud storage.”

To prevent another photo backlog, “Make a schedule for yourself to do photo maintenance on a regular basis. Maybe it’s monthly, quarterly, or every six months,” said Al-Saigh. “Digital photos are easy to get backlogged because there’s no limit to how many you can take.”

Use moments of unavoidable idle time, such as waiting for a medical appointment, and delete unwanted digital photographs. “It’s time better spent cleaning off your phone rather than watching TV in a waiting room or reading an old magazine,” said Al-Saigh. “Also, be mindful of the photos you take. When on a vacation, take pictures with people that you’ll cherish into the future, rather than a landscape or scenery that holds less meaning.”